Such a significant fuss has been raised over old tweets by Trevor Noah, the South African comedian tapped on Monday as the next host of “The Daily Show,” that Comedy Central was forced to issue a statement of support for the young comic.
Noah, who is on an international comedy tour, went from a celebrated new talk-show host to the target of a smear campaign within a 24-hour time period.
Noah simultaneously was called racist, sexist and anti-Semitic for a series of fairly harmless jokes on Twitter that deign to tread on subjects like race, sex and Israel. The fact that Noah is a comedian whose job is to rile the masses seems to be lost on the Twitter critics who have begun to pile on, with many even calling on Comedy Central to can him before he even takes over from Jon Stewart later this year—the date Stewart steps down has not been specified.
But Comedy Central tried to remind the public that Noah is actually a comedian who tells jokes and pushes buttons for a living.
“Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included,” Comedy Central said in a statement. “To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”
In his own defense, Noah took to Twitter to defend himself. “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian,” he said on Twitter.
What did Noah say? Here are a few examples of tweets that got him in trouble. “A hot white woman with ass is like a unicorn. Even if you do see one, you’ll probably never get to ride it,” he tweeted in 2011.
“Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as a rich Jewish man #BeatsbyDreidel,” he tweeted in 2014.
Here was a tweet about Asians: “I just saw an Asian chick so white she started dating black guys.”
Comedians who are fearless and anxious to push buttons are always on the verge of upsetting someone.
Noah, 31, delves into his racial background frequently in his comedy, turning pain into laughs as he talks about growing up during apartheid when the very union of his parents—a Black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father—was illegal.
In his stand-up comedy special on Showtime, Noah does a hilarious routine where he mimics the strangeness of going out in public with his parents and all of them having to pretend they weren’t together.
“I didn’t live a normal life—I grew up in a country that wasn’t normal,” he said to the New York Times after his selection was announced.
He talks in his comedy about how damaged and off-base is the American perception of his homeland. During an appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman” in 2013, Noah said he didn’t like being introduced as a comedian from Africa because he felt like the implication was that he represented the entire continent.
“They make it sound like a guy in leopard skin’s going to come running on the stage,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the tempest will die down or if it has legs—forcing Comedy Central to move in another direction. But it is an indication of how treacherous the terrain of social media is for comedians, who can’t rely on voice inflection, facial expression and context to sell the joke. They get 140 characters to amuse or offend, just like everybody else.